Mainstream Young Adult (YA) fiction contains some of the most popular and influential series of the past few decades. Iconic series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have captured the imaginations of millions of kids and adults everywhere. About a year ago, I was just delving into the complicated forays of gender studies and other types of critical theory, so the more I thought about several particular series, the more I noticed a trend and I asked myself, “Why have certain series not only garnered immense popularity, but also sparked fanbases and left cultural footprints that might last for generations while others which are just as powerful have not?”
Specifically, I had two series on my mind: Uglies (just the trilogy) by Scott Westerfeld and The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins. Both are extremely similar to the point where I would almost say that Collins borrowed from Westerfeld. Yet Westerfeld’s series, which came a few years before Collins’, hardly has a fanbase to speak of despite it landing on the New York Times bestseller’s list. Among the places I’ve traveled in the Internet and among people my age and younger, no one talks about Uglies and most haven’t even heard of it. To me, both series are on par with each other, although I favor Uglies because it ultimately does not give into one major yet infuriating YA trope: that the heroine chooses one of two boys pining after her.
That trope, I suspect, is one of the main reasons why Uglies hasn’t left the cultural mark that it deserves to leave. Zooming out further, I think this is a result of which gendered stories are socially acceptable/comfortable to the masses. When I considered Harry Potter and Twilight as well, I saw the pattern more clearly. The kyriarchy, as it manifests specifically in patriarchy, has instilled in us favoritism toward certain kinds of stories happening to certain genders. We are comfortable with boys experiencing epic, heroic quests and girls experiencing thrilling, heterosexual romance. In the end, we want all stories to end neatly by fitting these expected patterns.
Harry Potter, despite being written by a woman, is a very male story. There are only a few instances where we’re taken outside of Harry’s head and not one of those other POVs is female. The story also follows a classic hero’s journey formula and at the very end, the ultimate evil is vanquished and the main character is married with children. While the series is rich, exciting, and absolutely deserving of its popularity, a factor of that popularity is definitely how easily it conforms to what society accepts as a boy story. Are there amazing female characters? Absolutely. My argument here is not calling into question the quality of the story or the characters. I’m simply pointing out that Harry Potter has benefitted from adhering to a comfortable pattern.
Twilight benefits similarly. The main character is a female and the action takes a backseat to the obsessive romance. One of the big conflicts in the series is Bella’s choice between romantic partners: Edward or Jacob. In the end, she chooses one over the other and also has a family by that point. Therefore, this series is a comfortable female story. Its major focus is what we are taught to expect of female-centered stories. In boy stories, saving the world takes center stage and romance is usually a subplot. In girl stories, romance is the focus and there might be some action on the side. The vast majority of people will gravitate toward these stories because we have been trained from the start that certain things happen to boys and different things happen to girls. The fact that Twilight fits this comfortable pattern accounts for its popularity just as Harry Potter’s conformation does. In essence, both Harry Potter and Twilight maintain a status quo that leave readers feeling complete whether they realize it or not.
Uglies and The Hunger Games deviate from this pattern, although Uglies does it more. Both series are essentially action stories that happen to girls. In their own ways, they dismantle or deny the powers that be and save the world (or not). They are free agents, free thinkers, and headstrong in their mission to change or destroy the system once they become aware of it. Yet The Hunger Games ultimately ends in the folds of that pattern in which the main character chooses a love interest and the world is completely peaceful. Although the romance in the series is unquestionably a subplot, it still has Katniss conform to the “girl chooses a boy to be with at the end” trope. Uglies does not. Throughout the series, Tally has two love interests. One dies and the other, she realizes, is not worth getting involved with romantically. Also, she neither chooses to side with the state nor the rebels. Thus, the third book ends in tension and incompleteness if you find comfort in stories that end with love and the destruction of the evil force. This is one of the reasons why I think The Hunger Games left a cultural mark where Uglies didn’t. For the populous, it’s radical enough to challenge one aspect of who action stories happen to, but conforms enough to what we expect happens to girls.
Also, The Hunger Games has the Tumblr advantage whereas Uglies ended well before Tumblr’s popularity kicked in. I think if Tumblr had been as popular as it is now when Uglies was released, it would’ve gotten much more attention. A movie deal might’ve helped too, but again, a story like Uglies that does not conform to what society is used to a girl experiencing in fiction is less likely to interest major studios.
This is by no means an extensive post on the matter and there’s probably a lot I’m missing here. If I were a lit major, I would’ve written a thesis on this and if I had more time, I would do some more research/analyzing. I think the trend is changing as people are more willing to change their ideas of what boy or girl stories look like, but it comes with the caveat that all of these stories, whether they deviate or conform, happen to cisgender, heterosexual white people (with the exception of The Hunger Games, but the vast majority of fans don’t realize that Katniss isn’t white). Any progress or attitude shifting is still just a drop in the ocean of changing people’s notions of what makes a comfortable, acceptable, and popular story.